Our trip began around noon. From Stanford, we headed over the Dumbarton Bridge, and followed highway 84 through Fremont and then up to Livermore. The section of road between 880 and 680 was quite scenic, going up through a very dry and wild-looking Niles Canyon. Once we reached 580 in Livermore, we headed east into the central valley.
We experienced the usual Tracy slowdown on 580, took a small section of 5 north to Manteca, and then continued along route 120 east. We spent quite a while on 120, going across the central valley at what is probably its widest point. We got gas in Oakdale, but continued otherwise with any stops to near Chinese Camp. Where 108 and 120 split, we took 120, going southward along the western side of Don Pedro reservoir. At the tiny town of Moccasin, we left the highway, taking the shortcut of Old Priest Grade up to Priest. It was a very steep road, and quite windy, and popular, but we made it up without overheating, and continued along 120.
Going east again, 120 took us through Groveland, and a variety of tiny villages, as we gradually gained elevation. We reached the entrance of Yosemite National Park not long after 4PM. There we learned from the ranger that the weather had been rainy of late. It was indeed rainy, and the road through park was wet, more often than not. Quite a few of the peaks in the eastern part of the park were also very well-covered with snow. We hoped that the same would not be true of Mt. Whitney.
The drive through the park was pleasant, and we took a number of breaks to admire the view. More than 2 hours later, we crossed the eastern boundary of the park and the Tioga Pass (elevation 9945 feet) and began to descend. We passed Tioga and Ellery lakes, both extremely pretty in the late afternoon, and zigzagged our way down Lee Vining canyown, with its 2000 foot or more walls of rock on both sides, and a tiny river at the bottom. We reached highway 395 around 6:30, near the town of Lee Vining.
It became dark rather quickly at the bottom, and after half an hour we switched drivers, put in a cassette, and continued. The 120 miles or so to Lone Pine passed rather quickly, as we passed Mammoth Lakes, Big Pine, Bishop, Independence and finally the town of Lone Pine itself. We checked into the motel (the Best Western Frontier) around 8:30PM, and hurried off to a pizza place where we had a somewhat disappointing dinner, while pundits spoke on T.V. in background about the first Bush-Kerry presidential debate. We returned quickly to the motel, and went to bed around 10PM.
We were up early, before 7. We had a quick 'continental breakfast' (of the sort that gives continentals a bad name), checked out, and drove to the ranger station, which we had to wait at 'til it opened at 8. By the time it opened we'd been joined by 4 other groups. Like the previous time, we drew numbers from a hat to determine who went first. I chose 3 of a possible 4.
From the weather in Yosemite we were somewhat nervous about whether the peak was in fact accessible. According to the ranger it was, and miraculously, they were enough under quota to give us a permit for 2 nights (despite no reservation). That's the second time we've succeeded in not entering the lottery, and still got a permit.
From the ranger station, we drove west, on Whitney Portal Road, across a series of strange formations known as the Alabama Hills, where many western movies have been filmed. After the Alabama Hills, there were no foothills, the road and the mountains went up directly. We went from around 4,000 feet to more than 8,000 feet in around 20 minutes.
At the parking lot, we had to go through the routine of cleaning out the car, and finishing up the packing of the packs. What we ended with were as follows:
-my pack - one change of clothes, two jackets, a hat, several pairs of socks, camera, film, maps, flashlight, knife, water filter, tent (Sierra Designs Sirius, about 4.5 lbs), sleeping bag, small day pack, sleeping pad, 3 liters of water
-my father's pack - one change of clothes, three jackets, 2 cameras, plenty of film, first aid kit, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, 3 liters of water, sunscreen, and bear cannister with food
The packs themselves were both REI Morning Star internal frame packs. In addition, we also had walking sticks, hiking boots
We finally didn't finish packing and leave until 10:30AM.
The trail began by rapidly ascending in short switchbacks up the valley side. After around 400 feet (vertical), it turned west, and continued more or less straight without switchbacks for a good while. We passed 2 small streams, and our view of the Owens Valley, directly behind us, continued to improve. Around 1000 feet up, the trail began to do switchbacks again, keeping between Lone Pine Creek and the steep northern face of the valley. It was hot going, but there was a breeze and the air was surprisingly cool.
We enter the Muir Wilderness around noon or so, and then crossed the south fork of Lone Pine Creek just above Lone Pine Lake. The junction with the trail to Lone Pine Lake (the lake was near, but not quite visible from the trail) was 1700 feet up above the trailhead.
The trail continued to climb through steep switchbacks for another few hundred feet afterwards, before descending slightly to Outpost meadow, which was no longer much of a meadow, thanks to a long warm summer. At the far end of the meadow, we passed Outpost Camp, the lower of the two base camps for Mt. Whitney.
Immediately, we encountered more switchbacks as the trail worked around a stretch of cliff, following the course of a small stream. Once we emerged, we traversed a rocky hill immediately above Mirror Lake, finally curving around to place us in the middle of the valley again. Atop that hill we had a quick lunch. The wind made the experience downright cold, and at various points the mist condensed on us, making it even colder.
We continued around 2PM. The trail was now mainly switchbacks, first up the middle, and then next to the north side of the valley. It was quite rocky, and portions of the trail rested right on top of solid rock. Almost all vegetation had disappeared. We met a steady stream of outward bound hikers.
The sun came out briefly as we continued, and there was even a bit of snow that fell on us as we continued. The last 1,000 feet were quite strenuous, so we didn't reach Trail Camp until a quarter of 4PM.
Trail Camp is just a series of sites clustered near the trail near the eastern edge of a small lake. The lake's main purpose, from our perspective, was a source of drinking water, a task it performed admirably. Most of the sites are just flat areas with large rocks on one or another side to help block the wind. And yes, there was plenty of wind. Because the area is overshadowed by a 13,000 foot ridge to the west and north, the sun sets early. The camp itself is about 12,000 feet, which means that once the sun sets, it gets cold. Fast.
So after a short break, we set about finding a site. We ended up opting for one with a small, human-constructed, rock wall on three sides. When we started setting up the tent, I realized 2 things. First, the tent had no tarp included with it. Oops. Second, it was cold, and I had no gloves.
At any rate, we set up the tent, and moved most of the important stuff inside. Once I got into my sleeping bag, added a jacket, and changed to long pants, I was almost warm. We ate an extremely early dinner whose secondary purpose was to dispose of the food that we couldn't fit in the bear cannister. For whatever reason, neither of us was all that hungry, which made the task a bit more difficult. I also had a headache, and afterwards took a few aspirin to try and weaken it.
By 7:30PM, the sun had basically set, and it was quite cold outside. We found a home for the bear cannister, secured the rest of our stuff, and quickly returned to the tent. There began the difficult task of trying to sleep.
I did eventually fall asleep, although I was awakened several times, including the eventual arrival of the morning.Despite being bundled up in most of the clothes I'd brought, by early morning I was almost cold, and the temperature was such that condensation in the tent had frozen, as had the smaller water bottles. It was very cold.
We woke up around 6AM. The sky was already somewhat light, and there was a reddish tint to the east, above the Owens Valley and the White Mountains. The first order of business of the day was pumping water, which we did from the small lake near the camp. It was a very cold undertaking, not helped by the fact that a good portion of the lake was still frozen solid. For the day, we stuck food and 3 liters of water into the day pack. There is no reliable water source above Trail Camp, so a good bit of water is definitely in order. We also had the 3 cameras: my dad's digital and medium format ones, and my old-fashion 35mm SLR.
We left the camp just before 8. It was still awfully cold, but the sun had actually risen, and after a surprisingly short time I was pretty warm. The trail's course to the ridge was almost impossible to see from below, but according to the rumors, it takes 96 switchbacks to get to the top. In our case, there were already many groups of hikers, ahead and behind us, so we had a rough idea of where we were headed. The switchbacks were reasonably steep, but the views of the Owens Valley were nothing short of spectacular. There were also occasional ice deposits, and once we were well above the camp, a good deal of snow beside the trail. It took us a little more than an hour to reach the ride and Trail Crest.
Trail Crest, at 13,600 feet, is where the trail goes from facing east to facing west. In short, it's where we crossed the Sierras, and if someone were more creative, they probable would have named it Whitney Pass, or some such. We had ourselves a brief rest, and a second breakfast. Both sides are pretty sheer, but the landscape looking west was quite impressive, and probably not good for anybody prone to vertigo. You basically have a series of 2,000 ft. high cliffs enclosing a basin containing two lakes. Even the basin is so high, though, that there are no trees whatsoever. Farther west, you see trees, and other ranges of what look like gentle hills. Being on Trail Crest, were it not for some massive odd shaped rock slabs, is like being on top of the world.
Around half past nine, we departed, and the trail actually descended a bit, skirting sheer cliff and chimney shaped outcroppings to reach the junction with the Crabtree Lake trail. From there, if one wants, one can eventually reach Sequoia National Park headquarters. It's a long way though. In any case, after the brief descent, the trail leveled out. One of the results of the ridge being so uneven was that occasionally we were afforded 'peepholes' between the crags, between two crests. After around half an hour, the ridge began to widen, and the cliffs metamorphosed into gentler hills of loose rock. The trail ascended gently for another half hour, before abruptly turning eastwards and more or less going straight up the hillock.
By this point the weather had turned rather ominous. Wisps of cloud kept zipping over the ridge, and much larger clouds blotted out our view to the west. The hill we were climbing more or less disappeared into a white void. At a quarter past 11, we reached the high point of the trip, the top of Mt. Whitney.
Although our side was reasonably gentle, a glance eastward sufficed to explain why the trail came the way it did. The other side of Whitney was a cliff. Drop a stone of the side, and it'd probably bounce all the way back to Lone Pine, if not farther. Unfortunately, the view of Lone Pine, and indeed almost anything, was pretty much nonexistent. Clouds ensured that momentary glimpses were all we had of the east. The west was hazy, but generally visible. Needless to say, the snow we saw going up to Trail Crest was present in abundance on the top. Our rest and picture break required a great deal of effort to keep warm and dry.
Around 1:15PM, we started heading back. It would have been a rather uneventful trip back to Trail Crest, but I had both an earsplitting altitude-induced headache and a slight case of vertigo. As a result, we took the return somewhat slow, especially when we reached the area with the chimneys. The sun even returned, albeit briefly.
From Trail Crest, however, the weather changed enormously. We left it around 3PM, and the view was more or less gone. What began as mere sprinklings of snow became rather serious, and continued for the next hour. The descent in the snow was doubly fun, because the ice that had been on the trail when we ascended was now hidden by innocent white powder.
By the time we reached Trail Camp, the snow had stopped (around 4PM). It was still pretty cold though, so we hurried into our tent. Not long afterwards, there was another flurry of snow that lasted a few minutes. This more or less continued for the rest of the evening.
After resting for a bit, we had our usual rudimentary sort of dinner, and went back to resting. Sleep took a while, and was a bit uneven, but we managed. It was much colder than the night before.
We rose once again at 6AM. Dismantling our partially frozen tent in the cold was not particularly pleasant, but we managed to get everything packed up and in the big backpacks nonetheless. After a final look around, we left Trail Camp, around a quarter of 8.
The trip down was not especially memorable. I was amazed by the number of hikers we saw ascending. The first big group was around 8. These were the day-hikers who intended to be up and down Whitney in a single day. We wished them luck. After around 9 though, we saw almost nobody on the trail. We took our time, taking pictures, pausing for breaks, and so forth. One disadvantage of going downhill was that you don't get nearly as warm, and my gloveless hands were particularly unhappy. It took us until 9 to reach Mirror Lake and it was almost 11 when we arrived at Lone Pine Lake and stopped for breakfast.
Lone Pine Lake was particularly idyllic because the sun hadn't yet risen on it. We were sitting in a gigantic area of shade, thanks largely to the enormous mountain on the south wall of the valley. There was only a little wind, which made for ripples on the lake. Unfortunately, being in the shade also left us rather cold, but at least we didn't need to worry about sunblock.
From Lone Pine Lake to the bottom took us another almost 2 hours. Especially towards the end, we began to meet groups of backpackers on their way up. In retrospect, it was rather a long way up, and we admired their tenacity. My backpack was unfortunately a bit overtight which was doing bad things to my shoulders. Thus I was exceedingly happy when around half past 1, we emerged from a small grove of trees on the road the went through Whitney Portal.
Repacking everything into the car, visiting the bathroom, and getting the usual collection of souvenirs took about an hour. While I generally don't care for souvenirs, I must admit that the Portal's gift shop was rather unique. As was the little pond where folks were fishing behind it.
Happily for us, the car appeared no worse for the 3 days it had spent in the lot. Indeed, the only thing missing at that point was a rather large bag of chips we'd stored in the bear lockers that'd mysteriously disappeared. Funny how none of our other stuff there was gone!
Getting back to Lone Pine took about half an hour. From there began the long slow drive north on highway 395. My trepidation about get a speeding ticket slowed us even further. It's a bit depressing when you're going 75 miles per hour and the road still doesn't seem to be moving. Around 4PM we passed through Bishop. We took a couple of photography breaks as well, including one above Mono Lake near what had once been a construction workers' town. The clouds were also making interesting patterns overhead, and the vegetation sparse in many areas, making the area seem positively enormous.
Instead of returning the way we came, we chose to take the alternate route over the Sonora Pass. To get there, though, we passed through a stretch of eastern California, from Lee Vining to Bridgeport. With low afternoon lighting, pastoral pastures and funk little towns, the scene was very appealing. We reached the Sonora Pass road around 6PM.
The Sonora Pass road was designed by what must have been very nonstandard surveyors. The road was not only steep, and winding, but one had absolutely no idea which direction it was going to go next. The road led first through a wide valley, then up into a narrower one, and finally, after a particularly steep stretch, over the pass itself. Particularly impressive was the sign at the beginning of the road, warning of a section of 30% grade road to come. We paused to admire the marker that said "Sonora Pass, elev. 9624 ft." at the top.
Going down was also exciting, the we ended up behind a truck with a horse-trailer that slowed us down. It also got dark as we continued, giving me a lot more experience in night driving than I'd had in quite a while. While slightly more predictable, it was still a bit disturbing, even when I did keep my high-beam lights on.
We switched drivers a bit past 8, which was good, because I was pretty tired. Indeed, most of the time from 8-10PM I was either asleep, or quasi-comatose. We continued west along 108 until we reached 120, took that all the way to 5, and eventually made our way to 580. I arrived back at school just before 11PM, a bit the worse for the wear, but with a new set of photographs of Mt. Whitney, and the somewhat pleasing knowledge that I was still capable of serious hiking.
And that's all, at least 'til next time.